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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Occupy THIS!

"Democracy doesn't come from the top. It comes from the bottom. Democracy is not what governments do. It's what people do."  ~ Howard Zinn

I'm old enough to feel a deja vu
Having successfully reached what is euphemistically called middle age provides one with a wider berth and a broader and hopefully more informed perspective on the world.  So I watch the OWS sit-ins with both anxiety and hope for our collective futures. I’m a parent and that comes with the territory. I know enough about the history of the world to reflect that all great changes in any society began as a disorganized, rather disjointed effort to refocus values and sensibilities. I also know that real change takes time, often decades, to infuse itself into a culture, of the mindset, and that it is never an easy path.  The media has provided us with a group of political pundits, who take great pleasure in devaluing and minimizing the OWS group by pointing out its lack of leadership, its convoluted message, and general disorganization.  But it is these very factors that give me pause, that make me take this committed collection of malcontents seriously.  

I also know that except in times of crisis, like the Great Depression or a world war, government leaders are paradoxically too responsible for things as they are, too invested in the status quo, to actually take on the responsibility for making changes in the “system”, however inequitable or malfunctioning they may be.  It takes the unrest of the educated but under utilized, under employed, and under valued masses – the people – to demand change.  To those in control, those for whom equilibrium is essential, that is discomforting and frightening.  In that group I would include all of the following: Politicians, Economists, University Presidents, Power Brokers, and Bankers. 

I love Political Graffiti!  

I wonder if they understand that history is not destiny -- as much as they would like it to be. Certainly our war efforts have made money, just like it did in World War II, only this time not for the American worker. Privatizing the efforts directed profits only to those companies able to participate. History doesn’t ever tell us where we’re going, only where we have been.

I’ve thought a great deal about the responsibility that historians take on. Imagine the daunting responsibility for interpreting the past through the lens of the present!  How does history and our definitions of progress, peace, growth, and development, change through time?  Just consider how Christopher Columbus is treated in schools today versus forty years ago. Today he is presented as the person who is responsible for the genocide of millions of Native Americans. In my time, he was treated like a hero. Is that a form of Progress?

Consider first the notion of “Peace” as a worldwide concept. John Lennon’s “Give Peace a chance” kind of Peace. When I was in grammar school, we had drills where we hid under our desks in anticipation of some imagined worldwide nuclear attack from our red counter super-power, Russia.  How many of our neighbors built bomb shelters in their suburban backyards? Today’s public school students, who have actually died in their local schools at the hands of classmates, conduct mandatory lockdown exercises every month. A real threat may be sitting in the next desk. What does Peace mean to this generation? What did Peace mean to my generation?

I might have defined Peace as military alliances between nations under threat from mutual enemies. It was -- Us versus Them. But is that definition of Peace still relevant in a world filled with millions of more literate and diverse populations living within single nation-states? Are our borders going to remain even relevant when technology links us all in an instant? Will our distinct cultures provide a better demarcation of on which side of any political question we may fall? Should we allow ourselves to be reduced to our differences?  

More fundamentally, isn’t it less expensive to live in a peace filled world than in a world at war, and shouldn’t that be the goal of our leaders whose vision must transcend the needs of the few for the needs of all?

Even kids know this. Since I frequently have the opportunity to work with teenagers, I asked a random collection of 14 to 17 year olds how they would define Peace and Progress. Here’s a sampling:

Romi age 16 –“I believe peace is economic and societal stability. I believe progress is expansion and a fairer but looser system that protects workers from the decisions of big banks but also allows those who are driven to make a profit from their ideas and talents.  Progress also allows those less fortunate into the market and to have a larger hand in the economy.”

Ellen age 15-  Peace is…  “When there is no war because war costs money. Progress is when new aspects of technology and business are created.  This allows the world to move forward and grown into a new version of society.”

Dan age 16 – “Peace is no involvement in wars inside or with foreign nations. Progress means competition in inventive technological and practical developments. Keeping checks and balances in commerce and avoiding monopolies.”

Greg age 14 – “There is no war, no draft and all militarys (sic) home. This is an obtainable progress. The government has achieved the goals they set forth. Progress is a state in which the economy prospers and commerce increases. A state in which money and assets are generally equally spread out and most are content.”

Those participating in OWS protests across the nation and the world are, I predict, only the first wave in what will be a long hard road to a new future in which Free Trade becomes Fair Trade and in which education stresses collaborations and critical thinking to build a better tomorrow for everyone.  Our youth already understand this. For everyone that leaves the site of a protest, I predict that they will be replaced.

In 1792 the brilliant Thomas Paine said, “My country is the world and my religion is to do good.” 

The time will come when leaders will emerge, when the message will be heard, and real changes will happen, because that is what history is. And it starts now.

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